Cry, the beloved Economist

Oct 22 2012 09:49
Jarred Myers

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SHAKING heads abound this week as SA's literate class walks past magazine stands touting this week’s Economist, with an image of the ubiquitous knobkerrie squad on the front cover.

Reading the special report subtitled South Africa’s sad decline will leave readers justifiably glum.

In recent memory SA has not graced the front page of this thought-provoking publication, which heightens the glumness.

But what is noteworthy of this special report is that, of the thousands of Economist articles I have imbibed over the years, there is hardly one without an optimistic bookend - yet this time Economist’s writers were stumped by SA’s stellar leadership with their seemingly infinite pipeline of dumb, dumber and yet more dumb.

Economist articles are formulaic and always begin with a short sentence which sums up the entire story, with the final sentence generally positing a conclusion.

Let’s review the report in an attempt to scribe that optimistic bookend which eluded The Economist.

Here’s the summary: "It has made progress since becoming a full democracy in 1994. But a failure of leadership means that in many ways, South Africa is now going backwards.”

It concludes: “The tragedy of Marikana appalled South Africans and outsiders alike. If it does not jolt the government into action, what will?”

The summary is reminiscent of Greek mythology's Sisyphus, a king who was punished by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever.

SA’s leadership unfortunately has fostered this Sisyphean reality through the usual suspects of cronyism, corruption and a can’t-do-ism. King Sisyphus was also avaricious and deceitful, no absence of parallel there either.

But it is in the conclusion where we will discover the seeds of our elusive optimism.

The SA government has indeed been jolted. This jolt has for many officials been their first encounter with the existential question of "what exactly is it that we do"? Action from government is imminent, but intent doesn’t equal output so the nature of the action is dubious at best.

It’s difficult to not feel the world's disappointment with SA, and almost a yearning to find merit in the path forward. Just this week JPMorgan Cazenove released a document entitled Dark days indeed for the mining industry, describing the SA outlook.

The report concluded: “Until greater clarity emerges, whether by the actions (and resulting consequences) of the mining companies, government or unions/labour, a positive bias to the South African mining sector is difficult to justify.”

Economists are renowned for hedging their opinions with ambiguous metaphors, but “a positive bias is difficult to justify” screams out loud: “I would love to give you a good review, but you really suck!”

This is where we find the silver lining: the abundant goodwill which SA has underpins the future redemption of the nation.

As the poster child of African democracy, the world has vivid memories of former US president Bill Clinton attending Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. Unfortunately Africa’s fairy tale did not come with a happy-ever-after guarantee.

The world desperately wants to believe that a successful African democracy was not just a historical anomaly, rapidly remedied by a return to the mean.

Goodwill is a precious asset, hard won and easily lost, and South Africa still has the ability to prove all the doomsayers wrong by restoring confidence and demonstrating leadership.

Until that happens, as concluded by The Economist, “South Africa is doomed to go down as the rest of Africa goes up.”

 - Fin24

*Fin24 user Jarred Myers doubles as guest columnist.
marikana  |  the economist  |  mining unrest  |  sa economy



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